Rich’s Picks: Best Film Scores

Under the SkinThe Golden Globes ceremony has already taken place, and the Oscar and BAFTA nominees have been named.  Did any of these groups get it right?  Here’s a rundown of Original Film Score nominees, plus a list of some they missed.  Rich’s picks are indicated with an asterisk.

The criteria are simple.  In addition to asking how well the music related to the movie (and in many cases, how much the music carried the movie), we asked how well the score translated to the home listening experience.  Those that were able to accomplish both received our highest accolades.  We begin with official nominees, then add our own below!

Nominees (and one winner)

Jóhann Jóhannsson, The Theory of Everything (nominated by all three; won the Golden Globe)
It’s wonderful to see Johannsson gaining so much attention, as we’ve been fans for years.  This being said, The Theory of Everything is not his best work, so this inclusion is likely a “make-up” nomination.  Those interested in his outstanding efforts are directed toward The Miner’s Hymns and Varmints, each of which stands on its own as an album as well as a score.


Hans Zimmer, Interstellar (nominated by all three)
Hans Zimmer is so prolific, and so accomplished, that he’s almost a lock for a nomination every year.  But like Jóhannsson above, he’s produced a score for Interstellar that’s good, but not great.  The organ tones are the height of the expansive sonics, but tend to overwhelm the picture; and they don’t hold up as well at home, where the thinness of the overall score – which at many points had to carry the movie – is exposed.


Antonio Sanchez, Birdman (nominated by BAFTA and the Golden Globes)
Two big percussion scores were in the running this year.  Sanchez’ score is a perfect match for Birdman, improvisatory and stuttering.  Justin Hurwitz’ score for Drumline is an echo of its subject, both driving and driven.  Each score does exactly what is expected, but needs the accompanying film in order to thrive.  When judged as part of the film, Sanchez’ score is worthy of a nod, but when separated from the visuals, it falls short by a riff.

*Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel (nominated by BAFTA and the Oscars)
The first of Desplat’s nominated works is well-deserving of recognition, as it satisfies both the needs of the film (quirky, endearing, and nostalgic) and of home listeners (many unique tracks, delivered in a variety of fashions).  Playfulness abounds, and one thinks of the pretty pink building while enjoying the tracks at home.


Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game (nominated by the Oscars and the Golden Globes)
Another excellent work from Desplat, but we like to spread the wealth a bit.  The most memorable part of this score is a series of slow extended notes (showcased in “Running”) that provide foreshadowing in a crucial segment.  The piano notes tumble like numbers in a combination lock, reflecting the subject matter.  But this score can’t hold a candle to the one above.


Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Gone Girl (nominated by the Golden Globes)
After The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, this modern pairing seems poised to become a perennial.  And yet, despite the moving nature of this score, there’s no sense of surprise, no inkling that the team is trying something different ~ and Reznor, in particular, used to be known for breaking protocol.


*Mica Levi, Under the Skin (nominated by BAFTA)
BAFTA is the only one to get this right, as Under the Skin is easily the best film score of the year.  The music works great in the film – some might say that it even makes the film – and it stands well on its own, so much so that we included it in our Music for Haunted Houses feature last October 13.  This is exactly what the film scoring industry needs: creative composition that sounds like nothing else out there.  Johansson’s alien may not have been understood by many, but Levi saw under her skin.


Gary Yershon, Mr. Turner (nominated by the Oscars)
Yershon’s score is lovely, but slight, comprised mostly of incidental music.  The opening and closing credits are appealing: moody, languid strings used in swaths of color like paint.  But it’s not enough to earn one of the top spots when so many other scores are fully fleshed.

Where’s the kwan?
The following scores received no love from the three boards above, but are worthy of consideration.

*Andrew Hewitt, The Double
The movie wasn’t very successful, but the score found a lot of attention in magazines and blogs, and for good reason.  The staccato strings, reminiscent of those found in Hitchcock films, provide a sense of anticipatory dread, even for those not seeing the movie.  If judged on musical merit alone, Hewitt’s score would have been a lock.


Alex Ebert, A Most Violent Year
Like his 2013 score for All Is Lost, Ebert’s work on A Most Violent Year is subtle, underlining the potential for violence more than its outbreak.  Mood triumphs over bludgeoning, and the score is all the better as a result.  The late-year timing of the release may have worked against its prospects.

*William Ryan Fritch, The Sum of Its Parts
Still in advance screenings (the latest being the Goethe Institute’s Science Film Festival), The Sum of Its Parts has been seen by almost no one – but its soundtrack is paving the way.  The documentary is about the interaction between robots and humans, and the soundtrack is surprisingly warm, a reflection of the tone of the film.  We hope for a wider release in 2015.


*Clint Mansell & Kronos Quartet, Noah
By all accounts, this was a strange film.  Forget the giant rock creatures (a reference to the Nephilim, tenuous but Biblical); the third act went completely off the rails, contradicting everything that anyone ever learned about Noah.  Yet this shouldn’t be held against the muscular score.  “Make Me An Ark” is dark enough to bring chills, while “The Spirit of the Creator Moved Upon the Face of the Waters” is bittersweet.  This score is well worth a visit ~ even for those who refuse to see the film.


Victor Reyes/City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Grand Piano
The grand piano had to carry the film, and it did, essentially operating as one of the main characters.  When separated from the visuals, the music possesses a different sort of complexity, allowing one to appreciate the composition even more.

Jozef Van Wissem & SQÜRL ~ Only Lovers Left Alive
This impressionistic vampire film is dominated by texture and mood, so the film score had to match.  Switching from Istanbul strings to guitar feedback, the composers provide a dark backdrop to an elegant gothic fantasy, the diametrical opposite of the Twilight trilogy.

The 2015 BAFTA ceremony will take place on 8 February; the Academy Awards follow on 22 February.

Richard Allen

One comment

  1. Thank you very…very ….very much Richard….awesome selection!!!

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